In which I walk among wildflowers in the sunshine
…follow the track down the thickly heathered, baby-pine sown hillside, over Highland Water, here at the nursery stage and hiding under the sprawling, untidy young oaks, up the opposite slope to beechen Puckpits which occupies the north-east corner of the enclosure.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following in the bootsteps of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Joan wrote about her walks in the New Forest in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, a delightful read, and I’m writing in this blog about what she saw, and about what has changed and what remains the same in the almost a hundred years that separate our tramps through woods and across heaths.
This week, I’m following Joan and the dogs along a section of a much longer walk she took (and I must do the full walk one day soon). Her walk, setting off from Burley, took in South and North Oakley Inclosures, Mogshade Hill, Highland Water and Puckpits Inclosures, and then down through Holmhill, Acres Down and Holidays Hill, visited the Knightwood Oak, and then back to Burley via Burley New Inclosure: a walk of some 14 miles. It being a very hot day (one of the first of the recent hot spell), and having somewhere to go on to, I opted for a shorter part, following Joan from Mogshade Hill, into Highland Water and Puckpits Inclosures, and then doubling back on my own via Withbed Bottom and Lucas Castle (a much easier 4.5 miles). Joan describes her full walk on pages 112 to 121 of Walking in the New Forest, if you have a copy and want to follow her account.
I arrive at Bratley View at the same time as a gang of excitable ponies. They charge across the road, through the gravelly car park and out the other side, before pausing to look back at me. “Did you see that?” they seem to say. “Aren’t we wonderful?” I nod my agreement, reminding myself that the stallions are out on the Forest at the moment, so the ponies are all a bit edgy.
One of Joan Begbie’s own delightful sketches from her book, Walking in the New Forest. Joan was artistic as well as being a writer, and studied at the Slade School of Art (now part of University College London). Find out more about Joan’s life here.
Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy join me, still fresh from their walk up through South and North Oakley Inclosures, and we make our way up to the top of Mogshade Hill. I visited this high spot with its views and hilltop pond back in March. This is one of the places in the Forest where ponies gather – called shades locally – and they are all gathering now, at the top, up and down the slope, swishing tails, grazing, occasionally nickering or nudging each other. Lots of Forest ponies already have their foals, but none here.
We don’t turn towards the Mogshade Hill pool, but instead carry on and along until we reach an entrance into Highland Water Inclosure.
Highland Water Inclosure is large, and is itself part of a wider tract of continuous woodland inclosures, which together cover 1,713 ha. If you look at a map, you may be confused (as was I, at first) by the words Bolderwood Walk printed across the area of Highland Water Inclosure, especially if you then spot the same term running through Ocknell Inclosure, north of the A31. This is, in fact, an old administrative division of the New Forest: there were 15 walks in total, now used to refer to an area descriptively, but with no administrative purpose.
The Inclosure is mainly conifer, high and thin, with most trees planted back in the 1930s and 1940s. That explains why Joan is seeing a “thickly heathered, baby-pine sown hillside…”. Many of the trees I see may well be the same as Joan’s, but they have grown tall in the decades that separate our lives. There’s a nameless pond in the north-west corner of the inclosure, which Joan doesn’t mention, but I decide to walk past it and am rewarded with a peaceful, reed- and water lily-filled, iris-starred pool. A Chiffchaff welcomes me with his untidy song, and the trees rise above and draw me in. This is a place to come back to.
Stonechats, exquisite little fellows like clerical red-breasts with their round white collars and dark jackets, were jigging up and down on the unsteadiest of gorse tops and chit-chatting away at us for all they were worth.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
We walk on, taking a gravelled cycle path for a short way (an ordinary path for Joan and the dogs), but soon turning off onto a far more green and pleasant ride. Off to our right the land dips into Coneygeer Bottom, open and sun-filled, and a Buzzard soars high in the distance. Joan and I both hear the rasping calls of Stonechats, and I think about how many generations of this lovely little bird have hatched, fledged, lived and died in the years that separate us. If I were able to do a family tree for one of my Stonechats – impossible, I know, but what if? – would I be able to trace it back to one of those Joan is listening to, back in the 1930s. Sometimes it feels as if the century between us is nothing, that our life on earth is not linear, that if I turned my head, just so, I could really turn and talk to Joan, and we could watch the Stonechats together.
We eventually hit another cycle track, and follow it until we can turn off on another ride (this one is boggier than the last, but passable) by the side of Woolsmoor Meads. Woolsmoor is a small plantation within the larger Highland Water Inclosure, but it apparently used to be a meadow. We cross another branch of a cycle track, and then find ourselves at Highland Water itself. It’s a young stream here, peaty brown and narrow, guarded by ponies, shadowed by Oaks and Brambles, but lying deep within its banks as if shy of being seen. We have to head to the right to find a sensible place to cross, but not before admiring a beautiful Dog-rose shrub growing nearby.
After a while, the ride meets a footpath, and we can finally turn into Puckpits Inclosure.
Joan, looking southwards towards Holmhill Inclosure, has the following to say.
The pines are the master trees of Holmhill…But with Puckpits it is different. The old wood refuses to bow to the pushing conifers. Beyond the bank the change is immediate and most welcome. Instead of coarse grass, spiny bramble and dead bracken, there is laid at the feet of the trees a green and golden pavement of whortleberry and beech leaves. Instead of dusty, untidy trunked pines and starveling oaks, bickering and shouldering each other, the satin, knightly boles of beeches stand about with an easy dignity. A spacious, airy wood, and on the day we first came to it vibrant with the deep love croonings of the grey pigeons. A wren, too, suddenly struck up with piercing sweetness from a big tree, drowning the pigeons and making the wood resound with his voice. We never hear it without amazement; the bird is so minute, his song so much too big for him, and yet he manages it with such exhilarating ease that he has made it one of the most glorious achievements in the bird world of music.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
I was not even surprised when I, too, heard a Wren as we walked into the wood, and then saw it, hopping from branch to branch of a fallen tree. There were other birds. Those Chiffchaffs again, and also a Robin and a chattering gang of young Long-tailed Tits.
Puckpits is an old inclosure, first enclosed in 1700, thrown open for a while, and then re-enclosed in 1868. In its later enclosing it was planted with conifers, and these are now some of the oldest in the Forest. Some of the 1700 woodland still ghosts the landscape as well – Oaks and Beeches, Holly, edgeland Birches. Joan is right – this is wonderful. I am half expecting the impish face of Puck – after who this place is named – to peer round the trunk of an old tree.
The wood is full of flowers and, indeed, so are both Highland Water behind us and the heathland ahead. Below are: top row, left to right – Common-spotted Orchid (near Withybed Bottom); Honeysuckle (heathland, near Castle Lucas); and bottom row, left to right – Heath Speedwell (Puckpits Inclosure); Eyebright (Mogshade Hill); Flag Iris (pond in Highland Water Inclosure); and Foxglove (everywhere!).
Stonard Wood and Withybed Bottom
We…came out on to the heather above Withybed Bottom. The hills look lovely from here.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Just as we leave the inclosure, I see a moth drowned in a woodland puddle. It’s poignant to see it motionless on the water, but also fascinating to be able to see the detail of its wings and body.
I only get a glimpse of the far hills as we leave Puckpits and Highland Water Inclosures. Stonard Wood, small and lovely and dense with trees is ahead, but we walk along its southern edge. Here, Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy leave me as they head off to Acres Down on their longer walk. We wave farewell, and I head round the edge of Stonard until I find the footpath that leads to Long Brook as it wends through Withybed Bottom. From here, the noise from the A31 is hard to dismiss, but is at least almost out of sight behind Fox Hill to the east and Lucas Castle to the west.
It is getting very, very hot now, even though noon is still over an hour away. I trudge down the slope, cross Long Brook, and then trudge up the far slope. My flagging heart is lifted by Common-spotted Orchids (there’s nothing common about them) scattered among the heather and Sheep’s-sorrel. The vast blue of the sky helps, too. On the way uphill, I pass an old stone with some barely legible writing carved into it. It commemorates a man called Admiral Murray, who was killed hunting in 1901. The track is called Murray’s Passage, in his memory.
At the top of the slope, I meet Fox Pond and enjoy the cool breeze ruffling the water. Then, it’s left and westward, back to Mogshade Hill. On the way, I pass by Lucas Castle. It’s not a castle at all, but the only reference I could find to it online was in one of Antony Pasmore’s series of New Forest Notes. He explains that it is one of the New Forest hills that was so named by people of long ago, but with no archaeological or historical justification.
Finally, I reach my car at Bratley View. I’m glad to be in an air-conditioned vehicle – that last section of the walk has been very exposed and hot – but also glad for fresh memories of the Forest to treasure.